Evolving Out of Faith

By Garth R.

Hi, my name is Garth and I’m an alcoholic.

In Alcoholics Anonymous we are asked to share in a very general way, “What it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.”

I grew up in a single parent alcoholic household. My father was a good man, who did the best he could to raise me with the tools that he had. He taught me things like how to speak properly, how to treat people with respect, and how to go through life as an honorable person. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that my father loved me very much and would do anything for me.

Unfortunately, though, my father was an alcoholic. I’m not sure if he ever went to AA; he went to treatment several times, but it never stuck for more than a couple of months. My father was the kind of drunk that couldn’t drink and work at the same time. So every so often he would get the craving for a couple of beers and then he would get started on one of his binges. Those runs lasted for weeks, or months; his business would collapse, and he and I lived in a state of poverty due to his alcoholism. We did not celebrate birthdays or go on holidays, we did not involve ourselves with community or family, and my childhood can be described as a grey isolation.

This became a problem for me when I started attending school. I lacked some of the finer social skills that a child needs to get on with other children. I could play pool against adults as a child in the bars, but I was lost on the playground at school. Maladjusted to life and looking like I came from the wrong side of the train tracks with my second-hand school blazer, I found school to be a difficult experience. As a child I recall being incredibly sensitive and I had no coping skills. If someone hurt my feelings I would either get aggressive and attack, or I would run away.

A self-conscious and anxious child. I tried to fit in, be accepted, be a part of, but I could never seem to get it right. Eventually I just thought “to hell with it,” and I turned my back on my fellow humans. I figured that if I was unable to fit in, then I should rather learn to enjoy my own company. I became a solitary child, an introvert who was into books and art.

Recognizing that my sensitivity was a problem, I figured out a rational solution to that, too. If being sensitive was a problem, then one should simply stop being sensitive. If one feels pain and that pain does not serve you in any way, then that pain should not be felt. The good things in life were only temporary, and anything that brought a person joy should be ignored because it’s the pathway to disappointment. My solution as a child was to go through life feeling nothing, like a machine, because if you feel nothing you will be ok.

My relationship with god wasn’t very good either. I got this idea from somewhere that if I was a good boy and I did the right thing then I’d get what I wanted. I prayed for the usual things, a new bike on Christmas, a soccer ball, and I wanted a new life. What I got for my prayers was a generous helping of disappointment, so I figured if god wanted to be all powerful and run the universe that was fine, and if I could be left out of his grand designs that would be fine, too.

So, sharing in a general way, you could say that as I was becoming older my fears and insecurities began turning into rage and resentment. In high school, I did find a place where I belonged, and that was with that group of maladjusted, dysfunctional kids that you find in many schools and learning institutions. We had a lot in common. We turned resentment into a team sport, and we just stood around giving decent people a hard time, engaging in petty vandalism and whatnot. We hung out together because we didn’t fit anywhere else.

We might have been dysfunctional kids, but we were also intelligent kids, and we liked to try new things. We experimented with everything that we could get our hands on. Better living through chemistry! We did everything from paint solvents to medications, to hard drugs, and we were very enthusiastic. We did everything we could to improve the otherwise dull, grey existence that we found ourselves trapped in. I don’t know why I never got addicted to hard drugs, because the rest all carried on with narcotics and I went down the alcohol route. I figured maybe it was because it was safer to carry around, you couldn’t get arrested for possession of alcohol, it’s so easy to get hold of, and it was convenient because everywhere you go people drink.

So alcohol became my thing, and its only because I’m sober now that I can look back and see why I drank. I’d be the odd one out, nervous, shy, depressed, not fitting in, tense, angry, and afraid of how people looked at me and what they were thinking — that I’ve got no personality. I always felt awkward. But after a few drinks I could relax, I could have a conversation and feel more confident. I could talk to women. I just felt better and more comfortable after a few drinks.

But I realize now that alcohol was doing things for me that I couldn’t do on my own. When I’m sober I’m still that screwed up angry and frightened kid, and without even realizing it I became dependent on the emotional and social jolt that alcohol gave me. When I had alcohol, it was unnecessary for me to grow up. I didn’t need to develop a personality of my own, learn any social skills, or overcome any fears, because after three drinks these barriers went away.

As most of us can attest to, drinking may start off fun, but it usually doesn’t stay that way. I knew that sometimes I overdid it, and there were massive warning signs that told me to slow down along with well-meaning people who talked to me about drinking excessively. But I never paid attention to them; alcoholics of my type live in a dream world of delusion and I couldn’t see the truth about my own drinking. I was always coming up with excuses (she left me, the cat died, my boss is an idiot), always playing the victim, always blaming others and staying drunk.

I was wandering through life without a real plan, just following my own guidance, and I was always comparing myself to the people around me. I could see how happy all these other people looked, and I got the idea that in order for me to be happy I need the things that all these other people had. So, I made that my mission to be like these normal people. I regarded myself as intelligent, able to do anything I put my mind to, and good at coming up with new ideas. But I never got it right. I was always changing jobs, girlfriends, friends, and where I lived on a regular basis. But nothing was ever good enough, nothing ever managed to change how I felt inside. I couldn’t find outside of myself the one thing that would make my insides happy.

During this time, I was suffering from severe bouts of depression, frustration, and anger. After reading self-help books and psychology manuals and getting nowhere, I was off to see therapists and doctors. I took medications because I was desperate, but they didn’t help.

For a decade I was wandering around in circles trying to make my life work. I’d come up with these fantastic plans and bursts of enthusiasm but my plans always fell short. Then I would get more depressed, go out on a binge, and get my medication changed, again. Then I’d come up with a new plan and go around in the same circle. Meanwhile, my drinking progressed in severity.

Eventually I just ran out of plans. I completely lost my ability to control my behavior and my emotions and would have no idea who I would become when I drank, or what would happen. I didn’t know if I’d be severely depressed or violent, or fine, or just fall asleep. Eventually I was drinking alone because I couldn’t stand to be around people anymore. One day, there was nobody left, and all I had left was my job.

Day after day, week after week, month after month I would get home from work, take my medication and drink myself to sleep. My mind and my body were collapsing. I was having DT’s, hallucinations, blood infections, seizures, and was throwing up blood.

I knew this wasn’t a healthy way to live, so I figured I would try detoxing for two weeks just to let my body recover. I tried a couple of times and I was shocked when I only lasted three days. This is the longest I can stay sober on my own willpower. I’d say to myself, “I’m not drinking today,” and that same day I’m walking out of a bottle store with something to drink, as though I wasn’t in control of my own body. I was drinking even when I didn’t want to drink, and it was a horrible feeling.

At 5:30 on a Monday morning I finally crashed. I was medicated, finishing off a bottle of vodka, and I just felt like I couldn’t go another step. I’ve heard this referred to as pitiful incomprehensible demoralization. I had no vision for the future left, I had no hope left, and I had never felt so empty in my life. I considered my options: should I directly commit suicide? Drink myself to death? I began having what we call that moment of clarity, as if I could see the truth about myself for the first time. In that moment I knew that things were never going to be different. I knew that all my plans for a happy life would inevitably fail. My life was over. It was a calm, clear realization that I was at the end of the line.

Amidst this realization a thought popped into my head, about going to go speak to this guy who was in Alcoholics Anonymous and worked next door to me. People had told me that if I ever wanted to do anything about my drinking, this was the guy to see. Three days later I attended my first meeting, and since then the changes in my life have been profound, and to my mind, beyond belief.

It was a transformative moment for me to discover that I was an alcoholic and, that there was a reason why my life did not work. It explained so much. I came into contact with others who felt the same way I did, and for someone who had always felt isolated in suffering to become part of a fellowship where my behavior was not only understood, but a solution to it offered, was amazing. For the first time in many years I came to believe that there was something that could help me, and this new hope was priceless.

I saw the 12 steps on the wall, and because I was desperate I bought the whole package. I went to meetings, I read the literature, I repaired my relationship with god, I did the introspection and self-examination. I made the amends and I was of service to my fellow humans. I figured that the harder I worked at my recovery, the more rewarding life would be, and that there would be less chance of me ever drinking again.

To a large extent this was true. I got sober in December 2007, and I have had many happy moments and experiences. I have worked hard, been recognized for my skills, become a man among men, learned how to become a father, and had a few beautiful and rewarding relationships — all the things that were missing from my life before. I learned empathy and gratitude, and how to be a person.

In my 8th year of sobriety (or possibly before that), I began to have doubts regarding my faith. Some things were not making sense to me, in particular the idea of an interventionist god. For many years I had believed that god had intervened in the lives of alcoholics to rescue them from certain oblivion, so that we could become productive citizens and help others. This did not quite make sense to me, since there were many instances where people who were far more deserving did not receive the gift of god’s grace, and I found myself asking why.

There were many small things that made me question my faith, and it was after watching a news story about a fatal nightclub shooting in the USA that my beliefs were truly challenged. I could no longer maintain the cognitive dissonance that made the idea of an interventionist god possible, a god who would prefer to save a drunken criminal over 50 terrified innocents. My faith fell and shattered, and I recognized my atheism.

For many people, Alcoholics Anonymous is a faith-based program of recovery. The good news is that one is welcome to have faith in whatever you like. Faith is a good thing, it keeps the fear at bay, it helps me through the hard times. I used to have faith in god. Now I have faith in the therapeutic process of the 12-step program. Very little has changed for me. I still practice the same fundamental principles that have kept me sober in the past. The only real difference is that instead of praying, I pick up the phone. Much criticism has been leveled at those who are staying sober without god, but it is unfounded. AA is more about the actions we take, and less about our theological convictions. I have seen many who have testified and preached to the heavens, only to drink again. Alternatively, I have seen many more keep their beliefs to themselves, who just do the work necessary and go on to live rewarding and fulfilling lives.

The only thing that concerned me was that being the only atheist among believers, I might not be welcome within the AA fellowship. Thankfully, in my area we have created a small, secular oasis, that at present meets once a week. The meeting is atheist, agnostic and, free-thinker friendly, and of course, being an AA meeting, it welcomes believers.

I am extremely grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous for saving my life and showing me how to live, and part of that gratitude is repaid by showing others that recovery is possible regardless of one’s beliefs.

About the Author

Garth R. is a jewellery designer living in Johannesburg, South Africa. His sobriety date is the 4th of December 2007, and he is the co-founder of the “We Agnostics” meeting, the first secular meeting on the continent of Africa. Visit the website Secular AA South Africa for more information about the group. 

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Galen T
Galen T
3 years ago

Thanks for a good article, Garth. You mention a nightclub shooting as a turning point for you. This is where belief in an intervening, providential God falls apart. There is just no way around the problems of evil and suffering, although theologians galore have tried. It is one thing to have faith in the absence of confirming reasons and evidence, but is quite another for a belief to fly in the face of the ingrained truths of reality. I sometimes cringe when I hear folks at meetings saying things like, “But for the grace of God I wasn’t killed when… Read more »

3 years ago

Thanks, I can relate!

3 years ago

Garth, thanks, Funny the, for the most part unnecessary, struggles we have to go through because of ignorance and prejudice. I’m getting real tired of it myself, tired of fighting everyone. It has brought some results, but I’m just really getting tired of it. may quit here soon. Focus on my own recovery again. As for faith stuff, the faith which is just sort of a positive outlook on the possibilities, I have for the most part had that during my time in AA, I even for a short spell would go around talking to an imaginary god, it was… Read more »

3 years ago

thanks Garth. it’s a process, isn’t it? unraveling religious myth from our recovering lives.

just like unraveling years of dependence on substances, to blot out reality.

one day at a time, we trudge along, and hopefully continue to practice detachment and compassion. from myths, from substances, from emotion, and we quietly learn to find our humble place in it all.